I didn’t know what to expect from the Hidden Cameras’ performance here in Ottawa last week. As I waited for the band to appear, my mind was abuzz with memories of my previous Cameras’ show, fragments of various media stories, and more than a few questions pertaining to the band’s present situation.
16 Sep 2004: Barrymore's Music Hall Ottawa, Ontario
Questions like: Would we be treated to the audio-visual onslaught of the folk-pop orchestra that took Toronto by storm a couple of years ago? Or would we see a leaner incarnation of the Cameras designed to endure the rigours of the road? How would the restive sounds of the new album’s more conventional rock songs interact with the more harmonic “gay folk church” music of the band’s past? Would the Cameras be able to make the reserved Ottawa indie rock crowd take to the dance floor?
All this uncertainty was understandable. After all, the Cameras have unveiled a new album—Mississauga Goddam—of surprisingly straightforward songs. They are also a week from embarking upon a major tour of Europe and the United States. There is the chance that, as the band’s profile continues to rise, its increasing success might begin to impinge upon the very things that made it special in the first place. I am referring to the elaborate stage performances in unconventional venues—like churches, porn theatres and old-age homes—and the sense of community that has always been so integral to the Hidden Cameras project. My hope was that this Ottawa performance, one week prior to the start of the European tour, would provide some insight into where the Cameras are at this critical juncture and where they might be going.
The upcoming tour will see the Cameras perform in many conventional music venues, like this evening’s re-modelled movie theatre. Joel Gibb, the creative force behind the Cameras, has always placed a great deal of importance on the visual components of the band’s performances. To my mind, the extent to which the Cameras’ endeavoured to take over the Barrymore’s space would provide a clear indication as to the sort of show that was in the offing. To that end, I was heartened to find that, while it had not been possible to bring the Cameras’ infamous masked gogo dancers on tour, the visual effects for the Ottawa show included lyrics projected against the backdrop of the stage, dry ice and bubble machines, and an inspired light show.
The extra visual efforts helped to make up for the band’s reduced numbers. Where past Cameras shows have involved upwards of a dozen performers, this lean touring configuration featured just eight musicians. Fortunately, most of the regulars were in the fold, including cello master Mike Olsen, and Gibb managed to bring along occasional member Gentleman Reg, who provided excellent vocal harmonies and tender acoustic guitar parts.
Of course, the Cameras invariably revolve around Gibb, and this night was no exception. He came on stage sporting a gleaming electric guitar and proceeded to lead the group through deliberately dispassionate versions of some new songs, including the new album’s title track. The electric guitar melded with Gibb’s nasal twang of a singing voice to create a harder, grungier sound than might have been expected. The other musicians tended to mirror their leader’s focused approach, which more closely resembled determined professionalism than the unbridled enthusiasm of past shows.
This staid demeanour, however, did seem to suit Gibb’s newer material. The tight and focused Cameras tore through “Doot Doot Plan” and “I Want Another Enema”, songs that come across as overly simplistic on record, but which found some purchase as concise, no wave-influenced rock ditties in performance.
For a time, it seemed as though Gibb and Co. had truly traded spirit for precision. There was little dancing onstage and the newer songs didn’t really get the audience up and moving, either. In fact, the first portion of the show more closely resembled a typical Indie rock show—with abrasive music being played at a sullen crowd—than the participatory happenings of Cameras’ shows past.
Perhaps Gibb sensed this. After consulting the others, he launched into an apparently impromptu version of the raucous “Steal All You Can Motherfuckers”, from his lo-fi first album Ecce Homo. That three-minute charge seemed to loosen up the band in all the right ways; they began to switch instruments, dance, and banter with the crowd. Xylophonist Maggie MacDonald even exhorted the crowd to engage in more “happy dancing” after a few brave souls took to their feet.
Fortunately, Gibb knew just how to build on that momentum. He donned his acoustic guitar and the band launched into “Golden Streams” from last year’s The Smell of Our Own. This lush hymn forms the natural centrepiece of any Cameras’ performance. With the stage bathed in yellow light and the bubble machines on overdrive, the divine organ tones mingled with gorgeous multi-part harmonies to create an expansive sound that drew the crowd in to the majesty of the Cameras.
Audience members flocked to the foot of the stage as Gibb softly intoned his explicit lyrics about the revelatory powers of watersports. Though the song is ostensibly about gay sex, its greater message is that the only true path to redemption is to find and embrace our true selves. We must then celebrate our whole selves, including our perversions, for they are ineluctable parts of who we are. In performance, the inclusive nature of this subtext is borne out by the manner in which the song’s ironic religiosity invites the audience to worship at the Cameras’ altar of deviance.
It was an invitation few could turn down. For their part, the Cameras were equal to the task of ministering to the growing throng in front of the stage. They seemed to find a way to marry the focused precision of the early part of the show with their newly re-discovered spiritual intensity. They continued to swap instruments, break out choreographed dance moves, and create soaring harmonies on exultant versions of several songs, including “In the Union of Wine” and the brand new “Awoo”, which steals all the right bits from Talking Heads.
By the time they arrived at the set-closing rendition of the sublime “Ban Marriage”, everybody in the place was stamping their feet and singing along. The song’s couplet “We aren’t fools to fall in love / but let coupledom die” puts forth a message that many in attendance would undoubtedly not subscribe to under ordinary circumstances. By this point, however, Gibb was pretty much preaching to the converted—and they were shouting the song’s titular refrain right back at him as they danced up a storm.
It was an inspiring moment and it demonstrated to me that I had been wrong to doubt the Cameras. They might go on to enjoy great success, but it will be on their own terms. Perhaps, it will even be in spite of those terms. The same defiant pride that first pushed Joel Gibb to start the project will ensure that its integrity is never threatened by its success.
It was also at that moment that I realized that I needed to drop my pencil and join the congregation. After all, the church would soon turn back into a bar and the minister and his choir would take off in their tour bus in search of the next batch of world-weary souls in need of saving. All that was left was an encore performance of the new album’s first single, the buoyant “I Believe in the Good of Life”. As we bounced and sang along with that refrain, I caught the line that follows, “as I kneel down for a taste of man.” I couldn’t identify with the specific situation but, in that instant, I understood Gibb’s message of affirmation in my mind, my heart, and my feet.